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Messages from patients asking doctors for medical advice DOUBLED during the pandemic

Requests of medical advice from patients to doctors doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study finds.

Researchers from Yale University analyzed over 10 million electronic messages from a network of primary care health clinics in New England between 2018 and 2021.

The number of medical advice requests physicians received each day from their patients increased for multiple different specialties.

For primary care physicians, daily messages doubled from about two messages a day before March 2020 to four messages a day during the pandemic.

While these findings come from one health network in New England, the data suggest that increased demand for physicians’ expertise during Covid may be a contributor to burnout.

During the pandemic, doctors faced an increase in messages from their patients requesting medical advice, a new study from Yale University found (file image)

Average daily messages increased for primary care, medical, and surgical physicians during the pandemic. Primary care physicians received 3.9 messages a day from patients seeking medical advice after March 2020, compared to 1.8 messages a day prior to the pandemic

The Covid pandemic changed how many Americans access healthcare.

As doctors’ offices closed and non-emergency procedures were canceled in spring 2020, people shifted from in-person doctors’ visits to video and phone calls.

At the same time, doctors – especially primary care providers – saw an increase in contact from their patients.

‘Talk to your primary care doctor’ has become a common refrain as public health leaders encourage Americans to consider the benefits of Covid vaccination.

In fact, people have been talking to their primary care doctors at a higher volume since March 2020, a new study shows.

Researchers at Yale University analyzed the electronic messages sent within a New England-based network of primary care health providers.

Their findings were published on Tuesday in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers compared message volume from before the pandemic (March 2018 to February 2020) to during the pandemic (March 2020 to June 2021).

In total, their analysis included about 10.9 million messages to 419 different doctors, across 141 primary health sites.

Messages from patients who sought medical advice from their doctors doubled during the pandemic, the researchers found.

For primary care physicians, these messages increased from 1.8 requests a day to 3.9 requests a day.

Medical physicians received 2.2 patient messages per day during the pandemic, compared to 1.0 per day before the pandemic.

Similarly, surgical physicians received 1.1 patient messages per day during the pandemic, compared to 0.4 per day before the pandemic.

Patients’ requests for medical advice (yellow line) increased during the pandemic for primary care, medical, and surgical physicians 

All three types of physicians also spent more time on the phone with patients or answering electronic messages during the pandemic.

Primary care physicians spent 25 minutes per day answering patient messages during the pandemic, compared to 22 minutes per day before.

Medical physicians spent 16 minutes a day during the pandemic compared to 13 minutes a day before, and surgical physicians spent 11 minutes a day during the pandemic compared to 8 minutes a day before.

The researchers cautioned, however, that the software they used to track time spent answering messages may have provided underestimates – meaning the true burden on physicians’ time could have been even greater.

Still, the trend was clear: patient messages requesting medical advice increased for all types of physicians in March 2020, and remained at higher levels through June 2021.

Messages increased even though the number of patients seeking care decreased during the pandemic.

‘Consistent with national trends, during 2020 Covid months, monthly in-person visits decreased for all specialties whereas telehealth visits increased,’ the researchers wrote.

Surgeons saw more people return to in-person visits in early 2021, as patients rescheduled elective surgeries that had been delayed due to Covid.

This study focused on New England – doctors in other parts of the country could have faced different telehealth challenges.

Other research could determine whether the trends in this study were felt more widely, the researchers said.

‘Given the existing physician burnout crisis and the already known pandemic-related stressors and risks to the physician workforce,’ they wrote, ‘the additional inbox burden reported here warrants additional exploration to assess the nature of pandemic-related medical advice requests and the generalizability of these findings.’

Physicians have faced high levels of stress and burnout during Covid, in part due to increased demand from their patients.

Additional technology and other types of support may help doctors navigate the demand for their expertise, the researchers said.

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